The group, headed by respected aerospace veteran Norm Augustine has been working long and hard on a tight deadline. Now is not the time to dally. The shuttle fleet is seven launches (or one mishap) away from mothballs. And, in order to keep Americans in space for the next five years (at least) NASA will be forced to buy seats on rockets built by its former space adversary – Russia. What a difference forty years makes.
The Obama Administration created the Augustine to see if there was a way to shrink the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of whatever will be the American ride to space in the future.
The Augustinistes are not supposed to write a single prescription – but instead offer a menu of options.
At first they were told to keep those choices within the current NASA budget constraints. But the group quickly determined that was a fool’s errand – as a dearth of funding makes even the current concept and design for a return to the moon unattainable. So they asked for permission to color outside the lines – and we will soon see how vividly they have drawn up a picture for America’s future in space.
Should we return to the moon? Or bypass the been-there-done-that Earth satellite and simply aim to put men and women on Mars? Is a mission to a near Earth asteroid a good intermediate choice? Or are we so strapped we should simply be content to remain in low earth orbit? Or maybe we should get out of the piloted space business altogether…
First a word about the shuttle. It is too late in the game to extend the shuttle era in any meaningful way. You can put a fork in that decision. Of course anything is possible if you throw enough money at it – but it would cost too much to put the full shuttle processing apparatus back together again.
There is one extra external fuel tank – so it is possible NASA could add one more shuttle mission to the manifest. You could also shorten the gap by changing the sunset date for the shuttles. As it stands now, the shuttle fleet is supposed stop flying by the end of 2010 – no matter how many missions squeeze their way in between the thunderstorms, hurricanes, leaking valves, frayed wires, loose pip pins or voracious woodpeckers which all have, at one time or another, kept orbiters anchored to launch pad 39A/B.
The commission will give the Obama administration the option to simply fly out the remaining shuttle manifest to complete the space station – without a certain end date. This will mean the shuttles could keep flying to the end of 2011 – or maybe even longer. Frankly, this makes a lot more sense to me from a safety perspective. Much better not to be tempted to push the old birds past the breaking point in pursuit of a post-it note on a calendar.
That said, keeping the shuttles flying at any rate at all involves about a $3 billion dollar annual cover charge. If the Peter the shuttle robs Paul the new vehicle the gap will simply stay the same – but move to the right.
So what about the next vehicle? For that matter, what about the next destination? Should the Obama administration “go big or go home” in space? More on that next time.